Published October 03, 2013
| Sports Network
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Atlanta Braves won their first National League East title since 2005 thanks in large part to their strong play at home.
They hope to keep that home cooking going on Thursday when they begin the best-of-five National League Division Series versus the Los Angeles Dodgers at Turner Field.
Atlanta's ballpark was a house of horrors for visiting clubs this season, as the Braves compiled a major league best 56-25 (.691) mark there and were 25-10 in Dixie since late July.
Wire-to-wire leaders in the division, Atlanta is back in the postseason for the third time in the last four years. A 14-game winning streak and a 20-4 stretch from late July through August propelled the Braves, but they seemed to take their foot of the pedal late and lost 13 of the last 24 games to close out the regular season.
"At the end of the day, you've got to win ballgames," Braves outfielder Justin Upton said. "That is what the playoffs are all about. Everybody is 0-0. They have to win as many games as you do. That's just the way it is. No matter who it is, we have to beat the team that is in front of us."
The Braves released their roster on Wednesday and a familiar face was left off, as the team opted to sit second baseman Dan Uggla, who hit an atrocious .179 despite 22 home runs. Elliot Johnson is expected to start at second on Thursday.
Getting the call for Atlanta in Game 1 will be righty Kris Medlen, one of four Braves pitchers who recorded 10 or more wins in the regular season. Medlen again finished his season strong and was named the NL's Pitcher of the Month for September for the second year in a row. He went 4-0 in five starts during the month and ended the year 15-12 with a 3.11 ERA.
"Everything is magnified, one little mistake is a lot bigger in these kinds of situations," said Medlen, who lost the Braves' wild card game in 2012. "You just have to try to not get too ahead of yourself and live in the moment. It's an unbelievable experience and it was a lot of fun last year. Even though we didn't come out on top, it was just a great experience and I don't expect anything different this time around, other than a win."
Medlen went 1-0 in two starts against the Dodgers in the regular season and is 3-0 with a 1.23 earned run average in eight career matchups (3 starts) with them.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, found itself 9 1/2 games back in the NL West on June 22 and seemed to be close to firing manager Don Mattingly. However, the team rattled off 42 wins in 50 games and claimed its 12th division title since 1969.
Atlanta lost seven players to season-ending injuries this season, but the Dodgers have some concerns of their own. Outfielder Matt Kemp is done for the year with a ankle injury, while Andre Ethier has not played since Sept. 13 because of an ankle issue of his own.
"If you don't have Andre and you don't have Matt, you're not as good as you could be," Mattingly said. "But we're still good enough to win."
The Dodgers are good enough to win if Adrian Gonzalez, young Cuban phenom Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez stay consistent at the plate. Gonzalez led the Dodgers in batting average (.293), hits (171), home runs (22), runs batted in (100) and reached the 100-RBI mark for the sixth time in his career. Puig busted out on the scene by hitting four home runs in his first five games, a club record, and was named NL Player of the Month and NL Rookie of the Month for June. All eyes will be on Puig now that Kemp is gone for a Dodgers club that was sixth in the majors with a .264 average.
Ramirez struggled to stay healthy this season and appears to be ready for the stretch run. Ramirez had a lower back issue and batted .345 with 20 homers and 57 RBI in 86 games.
Dodgers left-handed ace Clayton Kershaw will get the ball in Game 1 after a terrific season that will likely net him another NL Cy Young Award. Kershaw led the major leagues with a minuscule 1.83 ERA and was 6-2 with a 1.61 ERA in his last nine starts and finished 16-9 with an NL-best 232 strikeouts.
Kershaw posted his fourth consecutive season with 200 or more strikeouts, and allowed a .195 batting average -- .202 to right-handed hitters and .165 to left-handed hitters.
"He's definitely at the top of his craft," said Upton. "He's one of those guys, you can tell when you see him out before games, when he's not pitching, he's preparing, so you know he's one of those guys that when he steps on the mound, he's prepared. You just have to be prepared to go at him, too."
Like Atlanta the Dodgers stumbled to the finish line, going 12-15 in September. Since the advent of the wild card in 1995, only three times has a team with a losing record in the final month of the season won the World Series: the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals (12-17), the '00 New York Yankees (13-17) and the 1997 Florida Marlins (12-15).
Atlanta won five of its seven matchups with the Dodgers this season. However, these teams haven't met in the postseason since the Braves swept the NLDS back in 1996.